The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

November 3, 2013

Grocery stores provided jobs, delicacies

BY CAROL ROEHM
The Commercial-News

Georgetown resident Zigmas Mokaitis, who used to work at Szilagyi’s Grocery 60 years ago, said shoppers could purchase local ethnic delicacies such as Polish sausage and garlic sausage made fresh at the grocery’s meat counter.

“I did that in high school and actually a little in grade school, too, in the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s,” he said of working at the store.

Mokaitis wore many hats when he worked at the grocery store in Georgetown, one of three stores Henry Szylagyi owned and operated. The other Syzlagyi’s Grocery stores were located in Kellyville and in Cayuga, Ind. Szylagyi’s brother, John, ran a gas company.

“I was a butcher and a stock boy and whatever else,” he said. “I delivered groceries, too.”

Mokaitis recalled that some mornings he would be getting ready to go to school when he would get a call from the store’s manager.

“Goldie would call and say the butcher was drunk, so I would go to work instead of going to school that day,” he said.

Szylagyi’s Grocery stores “had a little bit of everything,” Mokaitis remembered.

“There was a slaughterhouse in Danville and we would get the sides of meat and break them down,” he said. “I would make the Polish sausage and garlic sausage.

“Back then, people would buy groceries on credit and run a tab.”

Mokaitis said he also has several canning labels from Webster Grocer Co., which had its distribution warehouse at 301 E. North St., back in 1915. The warehouse is gone and all that’s left is an empty lot at the southwest corner of North and Washington streets.

“I had a truckload of them,” he said of the labels. “I sold some of them and I gave some away. I got them at a sale.”

Grab-It-Here

Octogenarian Don Stuebe of Danville said he started working in the grocery store business when he was 15 years old in the mid-1940s, starting out for six years at Grab-It-Here and then nine years at the Paxton distribution warehouse at Factory and Stroup streets.

“I worked at the Grab-It-Here store right across the street from the VA entrance. It’s not there anymore,” he said.

“I don’t know how they got everything in such a little store.”

While working at the warehouse, Stuebe said the employees would receive a scrip that entitled them to a 10 percent discount on groceries at Grab-It-Here.

Other grocery stores

Ilene Smith from West Lebanon, Ind., said her family lived at 416 Martin St. in Danville from 1941 to 1948.

She said there were three grocery stores in a one block area: Natho’s store in the 600 block of Jewel Street across from Collett School, Miller’s store in the 600 block of Bowman Avenue and Otis Jones’ grocery store on Seminary Street.

“Mr. Miller had hand-dipped ice cream cones,” Smith recalled. “You could get a big two-dip of New York vanilla ice cream for a nickel. It was golden, rich and delicious.

“He also stocked chocolate chip cookies in bulk,” she said. “You could get one or a pound. They tasted like homemade.”

Smith said her mother worked part-time for Jones as a store clerk — stocking shelves and waiting on customers — during World War II when Smith’s dad was in the Navy in the South Pacific.

“I remember the Marvel brand well,” she said. “When my dad got home, he would send me to the store for a pack of cigarettes for him. Marvel cigarettes were a quarter a pack. He would give me a quarter and a nickel for cigarettes for him and a treat for me.”

Smith said Jones had a full line of groceries.

“He cut meat to order for his customers, and it was fun to see him grind hamburger or cut the exact number of pork chops,” she said.

“When his customers paid their bills on Saturday, he always gave them a sack of candy from the huge variety he carried in a big case near the door,” she recalled. “In our sack, he always included two big Hershey bars — one for me and one for my little sister.

“During the war years, he would sometimes get an item that was scarce, such as canned pineapple or butter,” she said. “He always made sure we got some of anything special.”

Germantown memories

In 1948, Smith’s family moved to Germantown and lived on Norman Street.

“At that time there was a Grab-It-Here store on the northeast corner of Fairchild and Martin streets, just at the entrance to the subway,” she said. “Soon after we moved there, it became a Kroger store.”

According to Smith, Germantown was bustling with a number of businesses: Jones Drugstore, which had a soda fountain and sold about 25 varieties of ice cream; two taverns; and a tiny grocery store north of the firehouse on the east side of Bowman Avenue where a woman named Elsie would sell the “most delicious” cinnamon rolls.

“The C&EI railroad station was still up and operating at that time and was a very busy place,” she recalled. “There was a lunchroom inside the station, and they served very good food.”

Smith said she was fortunate to have “lived in two great neighborhoods when I was growing up.”

“Our old homes are no longer standing, and the neighborhoods are not the same,” she said. “They are just a wonderful memory.”

Carol Roehm is the education reporter. Contact her at 477-5174 or by e-mail at croehm@dancomnews.com